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How The American Left Has Gotten The Upper Hand

By John Halpin, Guest Contributor  

"How The American Left Has Gotten The Upper Hand"

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It’s difficult in modern politics for those of one ideological persuasion to adequately describe and comprehend what the other side believes on its own terms. Progressives correctly scoff at right-wing notions that they are trying to pursue some undefined “European socialist” agenda and force the federal government into every aspect of American economic and social life. Progressives see themselves engaging in pragmatic uses of both governmental and private actions to solve concrete problems such as poverty, the lack of health care, or climate change. Progressives want to achieve greater liberty, equality, and opportunity for all people in a manner that acknowledges actual inequalities in social life and takes appropriate steps, within democratic and constitutional limits, to redress these inequities.

Conversely, conservatives rightly recoil at liberal depictions of conservatism as little more than an elaborate justification for greed, moral self-righteousness, economic privilege, and inequality. Conservatives see themselves advancing ideas about limited government and citizenship where individuals and families are the center-piece of social life and economic activity revolves around market interactions with little interference by outside forces. They believe a decentralized and limited government is more consistent with human nature and produces better economic outcomes.

Obviously, there’s more to each of these political traditions than described here. And it’s certainly fair for ideological proponents to question one another about their motivations, theories, core values, and policies.

But given the mutual confusion that often arises in ideological discussions, it is refreshing as a progressive to read Tod Lindberg’s astute article, Left 3.0, in the final issue of the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review.

Lindberg argues that the latest iteration of the left has transcended its past ideological divisions to put forth a practical, technologically sophisticated, and politically viable set of ideas tempered by expectations of slow but steady progress. What holds the left together in Lindberg’s analysis? “[T]he achievement of a greater degree of economic equality by means of politics.” This belief in equality has evolved throughout the nation’s history:

One story is its ideological evolution, from the socialists and anarchists of the early twentieth century, through the battles of the communist and anti-communist Left of mid-century, on to the birth of the New Left in the turbulent 1960s, through the quiescence of the Left during the period of neoliberal (i.e., conservative) dominance for the generation following the election of Ronald Reagan. Or one could tell the story in terms of the progressive movement at the end of the nineteenth century, through FDR’s New Deal, to LBJ’s Great Society, on through the primary challenge Sen. Ted Kennedy launched against Jimmy Carter, its failure, and Bill Clinton’s emergence as a “New Democrat” distinct from the old liberal partisans of an expansive role for the federal government.

Both stories, however, come together with the emergence of the newer Left — call it Left 3.0, tracing the ideological progression from old Left to New Left to today’s newer Left. Left 3.0 is not only an ideological movement, but also effectively controls (or rather guides) a political party fully competitive at the national level. Left 3.0 is an entity whose internal divisions are minuscule in comparison to the shared convictions that hold it together. Left 3.0 is a creature of its times, well-organized and fully synced to the digital culture out of which it emerged. And Left 3.0 has come into its own at a time, not coincidentally, when its political rival, the GOP electoral coalition, already under strain because of shifting demographics, is deeply divided over vexing social issues on which Left 3.0 offers clear answers.

Not everything in here is correct. Equality is certainly a primary value for progressives and a core part of our national foundations. But progressives have always placed a premium on human freedom as well. It’s clear that the left today holds many advantages over the right on issues of individual choice and a more expansive notion of economic freedom that includes protections against unwarranted interference by the state but also positive steps—on income support, health care, education, and other areas—to increase opportunities for people to exercise real liberty.

Similarly, Lindberg’s conception of the left as entirely hostile to its ideological opponents is overstated. From my experience, the left as a whole doesn’t view its critics as ignorant, stupid, or venal as Lindberg writes. On the contrary, since the late 1970’s progressives have grappled with conservative critiques of government spending, taxation, and regulatory policy fairly seriously in policy and political terms—sometimes too much so. (Financial sector deregulation in the 1990s and the current fervor to cut government spending come to mind.)

But today it seems the shoe is on the other foot as Lindberg suggests. Given shifting economic conditions and demographic trends, conservatives now have to come to grips with rising inequality and diminishing mobility in American life and look seriously at the left’s ideas about the use of governmental actions to expand security and opportunity for a diverse population.

Lindberg’s historical and ideological analysis provides much to chew on—for both progressives and conservatives.

Our guest blogger is John Halpin, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-director and creator of the Progressive Studies Program at CAP.

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